David Gems

Alexander Shulgin and Ann Shulgin, PIHKAL, A Chemical Love Story. Berkeley, California: Transform Press, 1991, 978 pages, $22.00 (paper). Alexander Shulgin and Ann Shulgin, TIHKAL, The Continuation. Berkeley, California: Transform Press, 1997, 804 pages, $24.50 (paper).

It is generally agreed that the so-called "War on Drugs" has not been a success, and a growing minority view decriminalization as a viable alternative. An interesting consequence of such a change, should it occur, would be a revival of research into the uses of consciousness-altering psychedelic drugs such as LSD and MDMA ("ecstasy"), which has languished since the early 1970s. A key figure in this field is Alexander (Sasha) Shulgin, whose life story is an interesting one. After serving in the U.S. Navy during the Second World War, he did a Ph.D. in biochemistry at U.C. Berkeley, and joined the Dow Chemical Company. Around 1960 he took the psychedelic drug mescaline, and became interested in its chemistry, and that of its derivatives. Over the next 30 years he synthesized and characterized hundreds of psychedelic compounds. The subjective effects of each were first tested by Shulgin himself, and then by members of his research group. This consisted of a dozen or so close friends, who would meet on weekends at the Shulgins' home, try out new compounds, and afterwards write descriptions of their experiences. Illicit use of some of these compounds subsequently became widespread, as in MDMA (originally synthesized around 1912), DOM (STP), and 2C-B. Surprisingly, Shulgin for many years also acted as an advisor to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), analyzing contraband and giving expert testimony in drug trials. In 1973 the DEA awarded him a medal for his "significant personal efforts to help eliminate drug abuse", and he was close friends with a number of top DEA agents. Two DEA agents even got married at his home.

Shulgin's special relationship with the DEA ended abruptly after the publication in 1991 of PIHKAL, A Chemical Love Story. PIHKAL stands for "Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved". Phenethylamine (PEA) is the chemical backbone of mescaline (3,4,5-trimethoxyphenethylamine). PIHKAL is a remarkable book, by any standards. Its 978 pages are divided into two parts, the first of which is an autobiographical 'novel' written by Shulgin and his wife Ann. I understand that the fictionalization goes little further than the changing of some names for legal purposes. The main fiction is that it is fiction. The second half of the book consists of descriptions of the chemical synthesis and qualitative testing of 179 compounds, derivatives largely of PEA, but also some of amphetamine (e.g. MDMA). Some of the accounts of the effects of these compounds, with names like 5-TOM, Aleph-1 and 2C-T-4, make strange but compelling reading. A primary aim of the investigations was to explore the relation between the molecular structure of these compounds and their psychoactivity, and their findings led to numerous research publications, including several in Nature.

One can easily understand the apoplectic response of the DEA to PIHKAL. The events following its publication are described in the Shulgins' second book TIHKAL, The Continuation. The Shulgins' home was raided by the DEA, Shulgin's DEA analytical license was taken away, and he was fined some $40,000. TIHKAL stands for "Tryptamines I Have Known And Loved". Tryptamine is the chemical backbone of psychedelic compounds such as psilocybin and dimethyltryptamine (DMT). As in PIHKAL the first half contains writing by both Shulgins. This includes sections of autobiography, psychological observations on the use of psychedelics, mostly by Ann (who is a psychotherapist), political essays by Sasha, and descriptions of natural sources of psychedelic compounds. This last section, entitled Tryptamina Botanica, details hundreds of natural sources of a bewildering variety of psychedelic substances, DMT in particular. Taken orally, this biogenic amine is rapidly deaminated (the amino group is removed) by monoamineoxidase (MAO) enzymes, and consequently is not psychoactive. However, a number of Amerindian cultures utilize the technique of mixing material from one plant containing DMT with a second containing b-carbolines, which are MAO inhibitors (like antidepressants such as phenelzine). These two-part mixtures, known as ayahuascas, can be prepared from a wide variety of plants, such as Syrian rue with mimosa or canary grass, and are highly potent psychedelics. The book also contains more chemistry: the preparation of 55 more compounds is described, including derivatives of tryptamine and LSD, and ayahuascas, plus yet more descriptions of the bizarre subjective effects of these materials.

Anyone interested in the question of whether or not there is any real value to the use of compounds with psychedelic effects is likely to be frustrated in their search for information by the fact that many writers on the subject suffer from what might be called "The Californian Problem": a tendency to drift into psychoanalytical or mystical mumbo-jumbo, as exemplified by the writings of Timothy Leary or Terrence McKenna. One gains the impression that psychedelic drugs are harmful to the intellect, and that anyone using them is at risk of developing interests in astrology, Carl Jung and Buddhism. In contrast, Shulgin displays considerable scientific skepticism and objectivity, notwithstanding his Californian provenance, and decades of consumption of psychedelic drugs. Given the good sense which permeates both books, he may have undone some of the harm done to research into this field by the likes of Leary in the 1960s. Currently the strange situation exists that, as the writer Jay Stevens put it "any teenager can get their hands on psychedelics on a street corner, yet scientists are prevented from investigating their effects". This being so, the possible value of psychedelics, either in psychotherapy, medicine or as agents of enhancement (e.g. as "creativity pills") remains an unresolved and unresolveable question.

As literature PIHKAL and TIHKAL are unusual for their hybridity. Some of the best postwar writing has been that which has managed to span the chasm between art and science, as in Primo Levi's The Periodic Table. The Shulgins' two big books span autobiography, organic chemistry, politics, ethnobotany and psychopharmacology. Their cultural impact is likely to be profound in the coming decades. A minor flaw is that while both books have an index for chemical compounds, neither has a general index: an oversight, especially given their great length.

University College London, U.K.
Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics (1999) 20: 477-479.

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